Taiwan ruling party's new chair vows to safeguard democracy

Soldiers holding a Taiwanese flag are seen during a preparedness enhancement drill simulating the defense against Beijing's military intrusions, ahead of the Lunar New Year in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan on Wednesday, Jan 11, 2023. China renewed its threats Wednesday to attack Taiwan and warned that foreign politicians who interact with the self-governing island are "playing with fire." (AP Photo/Daniel Ceng) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The new head of Taiwan's ruling party who described himself as pro-independence vowed to uphold the self-ruled island's democracy in face of China's authoritarianism and continue with policies that have defined relations with China and the U.S.

Lai Ching-te, who currently serves as Taiwan's vice president, on Wednesday assumed the new role of the Democratic Progress Party chair.

He won the internal party vote on Sunday and took over for the interim chair, after President Tsai Ing-wen resigned as party chair when the DPP suffered a big loss in the mayoral races across Taiwan in November. Lai is also expected to be the party’s candidate in the 2024 presidential elections.

“Facing China’s threat in the future, our new mission is to guard Taiwan, promoting Taiwan’s democracy, peace and prosperity,” said Lai, a long-time politician who once served as mayor of the southern city of Tainan. “Peace is something everyone hopes for.”

Observers will be watching out for how Lai handles China and U.S. relations if he does become the presidential candidate.

Lai had described himself as a “political worker who advocates for Taiwan independence” when he was serving in Tsai's Cabinet in the previous administration, but that did not preclude extending a “hand of friendship” to China.

He is likely to continue Tsai's foreign policy by working closely with Japan and the United States, said Kao-cheng Wang, a professor at Tamkiang University and an expert in international relations.

“I think everyone is rather concerned with how he will handle cross-straits relations, because he had called himself a ‘pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence,'" Wang said. “This has become an important label that has stuck to him.”

In his speech Wednesday, Lai said he would carry on with Tsai's policy of “four continuances” that concern Taiwan and China, affirm Taiwan's democratic system and maintain that Taiwan and China do not belong together.

In November, Lai said he takes the phrase of being a Taiwanese independence worker to mean that “Taiwan is not part of China," which is also in line with Tsai's publicly stated position.

Taiwan and the mainland have been ruled separately since 1949 following a civil war.

Beijing views Taiwan as a Chinese territory that must be brought under its control, by force if necessary. A string of visits in recent months by foreign politicians to Taiwan, including by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and delegates from the European Union, spurred displays of military might from both sides.

China refuses to acknowledge Taiwanese self-determination or recognize Tsai’s government. The two sides have not had any formal contact since the first of her two terms began in 2016.

Lai has previously served as the head of the Executive Yuan — Taiwan’s Cabinet — and was a doctor practicing internal medicine before joining politics.

“He is an honest politician,” You Ying-lung, a former DPP vice secretary, said of Lai. “He will not play the role of a political risk-taker on cross-straits issues.”